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It’s performance oversight consultation season in DC, and yesterday, Department 6 is a council member Charles Allen started the first such review in the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee he chairs. In a two-hour meeting filled with disappointed sighs from Allen and awkward silences and information gaps from the interim director of the Department of Forensic Science. Anthony Crispino, Allen was “shocked” to learn that the agency has no concrete solution in place to get its regular crime labs up and running more than nine months after the lab lost its accreditation.
Hold your proof
Since DFS is unable to fulfill most of its forensic testing and data sharing functions without proper accreditation, evidence in DC crimes has largely gone unused. Evidence has also stalled at the forensic chemistry unit as a paper problem delayed its plan to outsource the treatment. The laboratory’s Digital Evidence Unit and Forensic Chemistry Unit have not processed any evidence since pre-accreditation times and do not send samples to external laboratories, Crispino said.
“This seems ruthless,” Allen said. “How come we do not have a contractual capacity to do this either … and we do not outsource it somewhere? How is it not ruthless?”
The Digital Evidence Unit typically processes evidence such as telephones, laptops and devices in cars. (In his testimony later that day, Deputy Mayor of Public Safety and Justice Chris Geldart said there had been no impact on the processing of digital evidence; The MPD can rely on the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives task forces for these purposes, he said.
Meanwhile, the amount of DNA evidence from DC cases has been uploaded to a national database, CODIS – the key to linking crimes and identifying unknown offenders – according to data Crispino cited. The process of identifying DNA that qualifies for CODIS upload has several steps, Crispino explained: After the DNA sample is brought in from a crime scene, forensic scientists analyze the sample, assess whether the sample is large enough and good enough quality for CODIS , and upload qualified samples to the database. Yet only 7 percent of qualified DNA samples have been processed since April: Of the 429 qualified DNA samples identified since DFS lost its accreditation, 51 were outsourced to third-party forensic laboratories in Connecticut and Wyoming, according to Crispino. Of those, only 33 are being treated as there is “a problem” with the Connecticut lab, he said. In contrast, DFS uploaded 750 DNA samples to the database in fiscal year 2020 and 652 in fiscal year 2019, reports WTOP.
Crispino said triaging of DNA profiles to prioritize sexual violence crimes and killings for upload happened before the DFS faced delays in losing accreditation. Limitation rules mean that rape sets must be dealt with within a certain period of time, and they are crucial in identifying and holding the perpetrators accountable, just as they are in other violent crimes. But, under pressure from Allen, Crispino admitted that the laboratory’s bandwidth is much lower than it otherwise would have been; The Wyoming Laboratory can only take so many samples.
Build trust back
Allen shook his head when Crispino admitted he did not have a set date for the DFS to meet with the Science Advisory Board or Stakeholder Council. Addressing both groups with concrete steps that DFS is taking towards accountability and systemic improvements is the key to regaining trust in the laboratory and ultimately restoring operations.
“We have … dramatically less capacity to do the job than we did in the past,” Allen told Crispino. “When you hear me get upset about the fact that we can not get a stakeholder meeting or SAB in any hurry – all of this has a direct link to public safety.”
DFS has not had the best track record. In April, the national forensic body ANSI National Accreditation Board suspended the laboratory for 30 days, then withdrew its accreditation indefinitely due to problems with ballistic tests and evidence of cover-up trials, the WTOP first reported. The subsequent series of departures that shook the agency’s management included its former director, quality assurance chief and head of the firearms investigation unit before the firearms unit was disbanded in September. Federal prosecutors investigating the lab later found a deep lack of transparency and accountability.
But the problems with DC’s crime lab go back much further than last year – or rather, longer than the homicide case in 2015, in which the lab mistakenly linked two homicides to the same gun. A 157-page survey report on the agency’s overall operations released last month found a trifecta of long-standing laboratory failures, subordinate management and quality management systems and a culture where employees did not feel safe talking about problems.
Crispino cited the approximately 50 anonymous feedback surveys that DFS had received from approximately 200 employees as a step toward creating safe spaces for employees to bring up issues. But Allen wondered aloud why 75 percent of employees did not complete the anonymous surveys and what the agency could do to change those numbers and improve employee morale. Allen also stressed the importance of DFS advocating for the funding of more staff, especially in management and the legal team, in upcoming budget discussions with the mayor.
The report, released last month, confirmed concerns and exacerbated fears from the justice minister Karl Racine, Office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, and city officials about the potential for DFS failure to have led to wrongful convictions for years while not identifying the perpetrators. In a letter addressed to Allen yesterday, the attorney general called for “an assessment of the integrity of the verdict that appears to be unprecedented in scope” to rebuild DC’s public safety and justice system, reiterating the recommendations in the report.
“Confidence in DFS has been removed,” Racine wrote.
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